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Russia Tries Talking Nice To Mop Up Chechnya

But battle for republic could drag out for nearly a year, some say

THE new head of the Russian military forces in Chechnya said yesterday he planned a campaign to win over the hearts and minds of residents in the rebel republic, but that his first priority remained the capture of Grozny, the Chechen capital.

``We have to convince people that we have come not to kill but to build,'' Gen. Alexander Kulikov, commander of the Interior Ministry troops, told reporters. He would not, however, estimate how many civilians had died in Russia's seven-week war against the separatist republic in the northern Caucasus, which declared independence from Russia in 1991.

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Instead, he stressed how much food and medicine Moscow had sent to the parts of Chechnya under its control, and said he would concentrate on trying to get the republic functioning again.

General Kulikov comes to his new job as overall commander in Chechnya with a reputation as a thinking-man's soldier. He took over the task from Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, the head of the Army, who was hospitalized on Wednesday, allegedly for routine tests.

General Grachev's sudden disappearance from view, however, was a diplomatic rather than medical move, according to one senior Army source. It could herald his demise as Army chief when the worst of the Chechnya fighting is over. Grachev has borne the brunt of public criticism for the brutal and unsuccessful assault on the breakaway republic.

Even as Kulikov outlined his plans for new administrative structures in Chechnya, fighting continued to rage. The Russian Army kept up its artillery barrage against southern districts of Grozny and nearby villages.

Kulikov said his men were laying the groundwork for a new regional government in the areas of Grozny under Russian control and that the success of his pacification program depended on how quickly the Army could take the rest of the city.

``Village elders have come to us and said that as soon as we have resolved the problem in Grozny, they will turn in weapons,'' Kulikov claimed. But until a government of some kind was installed in the capital, he said, further progress would be difficult.

The total subjugation of the capital, however, could be as much as a month away, according to one senior Russian officer. Chechen fighters loyal to rebel leader Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev are fiercely resisting the Russian assault on the southern suburbs, and snipers are making life hard for Russian troops even in the districts they control.

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Even when the fighting in Grozny is over, Russian troops could find themselves fighting south through the countryside for another nine months, the officer predicted. They might have to fight village by village toward the mountains where Chechen fighters say they will retire to launch a guerrilla war.

Kulikov said that although his planners ``are forecasting the worst scenario - guerrilla war - I personally do not believe there will be a prolonged partisan struggle.''

He predicted ``individual terrorist and bandit attacks on the authorities'' into the future, but said he did not believe General Dudayev's fighters enjoyed enough popular support to continue their resistance indefinitely.

``Guerrilla war presupposes a mass popular movement ... but people in Chechnya are just waiting for all this to stop'', he said.

That estimation contrasts with the feeling among most foreign observers that the Russian assault has only stiffened ordinary Chechens' resolve in their battle for independence.

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